What Fiction Writers Can Learn From Moonshiners

Distillation of spirits is a wonderful process in which one starts with an alcoholic liquid and proceeds to remove as much of the water as possible in order to concentrate the alcohol and flavors. This is made possible by the fact that different liquids have different boiling and freezing points.

The simplest method for doing this is freeze distillation, as for making applejack: You take a pot of hard cider outside on a cold night, leave it on the porch to partially freeze, then the next morning you break the water ice on top, discard it (or boil it for your tea) and keep the remainder. Because the alcohol remains liquid at much colder temperatures, the remaining liquid will have a higher alcohol content, which will continue to increase as the process is repeated. Now, if I were to have done this in grad school (and I’m not saying I did) I might have noticed that the faint sulphur smell you sometimes get with hard cider (particularly if I procrastinated through proper cidering season and instead fermented Welch’s apple juice concentrate) gets magnified tremendously so that nobody actually wants to drink the result especially after someone mentions methanol, and so it would have sat in my closet for four years until I moved apartments. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

The trouble with distillation is that it’s never just water, alcohol, and good flavors — there are impurities in any fermented liquid, other alcohols like methanol, trace toxins. If all you do is remove water, then the concentration of those undesirables will increase too. Distillation based on boiling can address this.

It’s easier to control boiling than freezing. Different liquids boil at different temperatures. Alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water does, and so if you heat a pot of, say, wine almost to 100C, you’ll get a lot of alcohol vapor, plus some water vapor, and whatever else has either begun to vaporize or been carried along with these vapors. This can then be moved away from the heat and cooled down (such as in one of those coiled tubes you always see) and the stored result will have a much higher alcohol content than the original liquid.

Boiling is not instantaneous: as you apply heat, the temperature rises, and so the things that boil off at lower temperatures start to boil off sooner. As the temperature rises, some stuff boils away entirely, and different liquids start coming out the spout. When you put the spurs to that pot of mash the first stuff that comes off is going to be at the real low-temperature end, before the ethanol starts to vaporize: not at all like what you want the end product to be. This is what they call the foreshots, it happens to contain some particularly nasty stuff, and is discarded.

There will be a transition from the foreshots to the first drops of real liquor, it’s not always easy to tell where the foreshot ends. After a little while you’re going to get stuff that smells and tastes an awful lot like whiskey… but not quite. It’s going to be harsh, and there are going to be remnants from the foreshots still in the system. This stuff that comes out first is called the head.

The heart comes next: this is right around the point where you’re getting mostly ethanol out. By the time you’ve gotten to the heart, the worst impurities of the head have already gone by, and you haven’t heated up enough to vaporize some of the heavier stuff.

Sooner or later that sweet spot called the heart is going to pass by, and what comes out next is called the tail. The tails are not pure like the heart, but get interesting. Remember too that you’re cooking the mash as you go. Flavors are changing in there, stuff’s breaking down. It gets separated out, but not always thrown away.

The art comes in at the cut: to get the smoothest distillation, you need to cut off as much of the heads and tails as possible, saving only the liquid that came out of the tap in between. Sometimes the smoothest liquor is not what’s wanted, though, so character and distinctiveness can be achieved (at some risk) by keeping some of the head or tail. There can be redistillations (including the addition of new flavors, or separate distillations of the tails which are then added back) in which case this becomes a repeated process. The bottom line is that the distiller needs to know what to save and what to toss, and has to be willing — eager — to throw out some volume of saleable liquid so that what remains is the best it can be.

Now, I suspect that I already have the attention of most writers just by virtue of talking about distillation. But I brought this up and expounded on it at length because I periodically see people refer to the distillation of ideas, especially in writing, and I think they don’t know how just right they are to make that comparison.

Let’s say that you’re plotting a story and need to fill in a few idea gaps. You’ve got a character who you haven’t fleshed out, and you know basically what you want them to do, but not why. This is a process that a lot of writing books talk about, but my favorite writer on the subject is Orson Scott Card, who gave an example of a hero whose family was killed by a villain, and is chasing that villain. The question posed is: Why?

You’re still getting the furnace stoked up and your brain hasn’t really started to bubble yet. The first idea to come up is probably going to be the easy stuff with the low boiling points: obvious answers and cliches. In this case, if you’re like most people, the first idea you reach for is likely to be a cliche: the hero wants revenge.

But for just about any problem like this, you’re going to be able to keep generating ideas. The easy stuff boils off, and if you’re slow you might reach for something similarly easy: the villain’s a bad guy who needs to be stopped. The hero is seeking justice, not revenge. There is some virtue in the head, though, because the obvious stuff is easy to relate to. The reader will accept it readily and might get bored but not confused. (Hey, methanol’s tasty too)

As you get going and have to get past the easy stuff, the ideas you come up with start getting more interesting, more complicated. I think the other idea Card gave was, the hero is following the villain to join up: having seen such an impressive display of power/authority/dominance, the hero has to be in on it.

You can go further: the hero doesn’t know who the villain is and is pursuing for another reason. The villain left behind an article of value while murdering the family and the hero is honor-bound to return it. The villain spared the hero’s life and the hero has to know why. The hero is entering a religious order and must first make peace with the villain. The hero is stalking the villain out of sheer obsession. The hero simply likes killing people and the villain seems like a challenging target. The hero feels guilt over failure to protect the family and has a need to reopen that wound repeatedly by just happening to bump into the villain at cocktail parties. The hero thinks that the villain would make the ultimate sexual conquest. The hero must deliver a singing telegram to the villain. The hero has come to hate people of the villain’s ethnicity and is simply committing genocide. The villain wasn’t really responsible for the deaths and the hero is trying to assuage his conscience.

As the list grows, though, I think the “interesting” factor fades. There’s stuff in the back of your brain with high boiling points, the very weird or the uncomfortable. It’s harder to come up with plot-relevant ideas while still having a character the audience can relate to, so either the relevance fades a bit or the character-as-described becomes harder to identify with. It becomes much more tempting toward the end of the list to start changing the premises as you get toward the tail — in the list above, for example, all the ideas except the last one took for granted the villain’s guilt. They also started to get more out of the vague fantasy milieu toward the end. I think that the more you get toward the tail, the more the story itself has to change to accommodate them. The ideas can also start becoming uncomfortable, drawing on very personal or disturbing stuff, where one’s brain does not like to dwell.

Now, I’ve talked so far about individual choices rather than picking a range, but a story as a whole consists of a series of these choices. The story winds up having a kind of distillation profile according to where those individual choices came from. If you always picked the first idea that came to mind, then your story is going to be nothing but heads and foreshots. It’s easy to tell a story that’s mostly heads because there aren’t any surprises. The story arc is a straight line from A to B, the characters are as 2-dimensional as paper.

If, on the other hand, you always discarded the first twenty ideas you came up with and went for the tail idea, the story becomes difficult to read. The characters are hard to relate to (or easy in an uncomfortable way), their motivations are obscure or painful, the world is difficult to understand or to endure. These aren’t bad ideas, some of them are wonderful ones. A sprinkling of them can add enough flavor to make the difference between a good story and a great one. But a lot of them can overwhelm and repel readers. (I think, by the way, that there can be a distinct divide between editors and readers about where the tail is, in the same way that a whiskey connoisseur can appreciate and enjoy flavors that a casual drinker would find unpalatable)

Bootleggers Moonshiners tend to make a broad cut — including too much of the head and tail — for the sake of not wasting any booze. As a result, the real greedy ones can poison people. I think that writers tend to do so because they fall in love with their ideas. They become enamored of ideas that make them feel clever, of cliches that keep the plot together where it otherwise will fall apart, of shocking ideas that are used only to shock. Fortunately they don’t poison anyone (except slush readers who drink Maalox straight from the bottle) but they don’t necessarily do themselves or their readers any favors.

I think that a good story has a distillation profile like a good whiskey. For a good clean story you try to make a series of decisions that are interesting and non-obvious but not completely out of left field. No stock characters, no white rooms, cliches are avoided like the plague (sorry), but also no huge surprises, nothing deeply uncomfortable, nothing that might make the reader say “nobody would ever do that” or “that would never happen that way” (either honestly or in denial), no plots so intricate you need graph paper to keep track. If I could get to the point where I could reliably write a story like that, I’d count myself a damn fine writer. But I think that the real masters are the ones who can successfully make a broader cut, who know exactly where to cut to best bring in their weird ideas and to artfully use a few cliches.

This also works on the large scale, I think. It’s been said that to really master the art of writing fiction, you need to first write a million words of crap. (Or, you need to spend 10,000 hours at it) Never mind the skill and technique, there’s stuff going on here at the idea level too. You can look at it in terms of distillation: anyone who’s coming to writing having read widely is going to have a head full of other peoples’ plots, cliches, and other undesirables that need to be boiled off. These foreshots need to be gotten rid of, and I suspect that this happens mostly by writing those stories and trunking them.

Then there’s the head: all the plots and characters that aren’t on their face overused or cliched, but maybe aren’t as deep as they could be, maybe are kind of predictable. I think that there’s a process of getting used to tapping one’s experiences and emotions at play here, where a writer has technical skill and knows where the big rocks are but still needs practice at getting to the interesting and profound. Such a writer might go through the exercise above and think they’re hitting tail ideas when really they’ve only just gotten to the heart.

I do think that there’s a tail as well, though much less prominent. I’ve seen a number of writers who seem to write for so long in one vein that they seem to get lost up their own, um, navels. They write stories that can really appeal to fellow writers and jaded editors but maybe might be described as “unapproachable”? Of course I’m definitely at the head end of this process, so I’m seeing this from a distance and possibly with a little envy 😉

Anyway, I’ve gone on quite a while and you probably have a laundry list of the exact ways in which I am utterly wrong. I’m dying to hear all about it, maybe the ones toward the end will be particularly interesting…

(ETA: It’s been pointed out to me that the term I was looking for in the title was “Moonshiners”, not “Bootleggers”. Hence the URL. Sorry about that — it was the first thing that came to mind)

6 thoughts on “What Fiction Writers Can Learn From Moonshiners

  1. This is such a great post! I feel differently about the tail, though. For me, the problem with the tail ideas isn’t that they’re too surprising, but that they’re too much of a reach. If those ideas were genuinely coming from my deepest subconscious, I think they WOULD be good ideas because they would be tapping into something universally human.

    What often doesn’t work about them for me is that they’re actually the opposite– the head ideas are stolen from other art, the heart ideas are from the heart, and the tail ideas are random things I made up because I was trying to fill out a list. They don’t feel genuine; they feel like a reach.

    This post came at the perfect time for me– did you read the David Foster Wallace short story that was in the March 7 issue of The New Yorker? I just read it yesterday and I thought it was a strong example of a “heart” idea. He was writing about a character with an obsession for being self-sufficient and self-contained. If I was brainstorming ideas for a story about such a character, I’d probably come up with 50 or 100 before I came up with the one he used: a little boy who becomes a contortionist so that he can touch his lips to every part of his own body. It’s a weird, disturbing little story, but it resonates because he went for a “heart” idea (possibly bordering on “tail”) instead of “head.”

    1. Thanks!
      I agree that tail ideas can be too much of a reach — often they amount to scraping the bottom of the cognitive barrel. There can be good stuff down there, but often not. But sometimes that desperation comes from avoiding stuff that’s well past the writer’s comfort zone: there are some parts of the experience of being human that a given writer just won’t be comfortable with. The trick there is in learning to write that stuff well.

      Part of what I was hoping to get across is that I think there’s a substantive difference between the head and the tail (in distillation and in writing). The stuff that comes most easily to mind is comfortable but easy, the sort of thing one sees on TV all the time. The tail doesn’t consist of bad stuff, but it can be strong and overpowering. I think that a few tail ideas tend to warp a story around them — a story that’s more into the tail doesn’t leave the reader much room for comfort, like a very peaty Scotch. Kij Johnson’s “Ponies” strikes me as just such a story: it turns a lot of people off, but for those who can connect to it, it’s like lightning.

      I had not read that DFW story, I’ll keep an eye out for it, thanks!

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